Sunday, March 23, 2014

Lessons From Felons

Anything on you in any of these?
The US Department of Labor estimates that one in three adults in the US have a criminal history record. That includes everything - arrests that did not lead to conviction, a conviction that didn't result in incarceration, conviction of a non-violent offense, and of course conviction that led to imprisonment. That's roughly 1/4 of the entire population.

The actual number of people with felony records in the US is not known. Most estimates range from 6.3 to 6.5% although I have seen estimates as high as 8.7%. These calculations are based on the population as a whole and are much higher for select groups, particularly males of African decent. The President's My Brother's Keeper initiative is in part designed to address this critical issue. I applaud him for this. My hope is that he will use his position and persona to keep this vexing and shameful national problem front and center throughout the remainder of his presidency and beyond.

A point of notation. The term ex-felon is used frequently, yet incorrectly. I know I have done it. To clarify, once a felon, always a felon from a criminal history perspective. A felon is a person who has been convicted of a felony. The only real ex-felons are those that have had their felony convictions over-turned or expunged. Typically when people use the term ex-felon they are in reference to ex-cons, those that have been in prison but are out.

So why get into all of this? Well Tyler Cowen comes to mind. I reference the George Mason economist frequently because he gets it. Mr. Cowen's vision of how things will be socially in the future parallels what has been taking place over the last 15 years with criminal background checks. In a nutshell, we are at the front end of a paradigm shift on par with the Industrial Revolution (when production changed from work by hand to work by machines). Some 200 years later it's the Digital Revolution (the move from analogue to digital technology).

Two of the products of the Digital Revolution are measurement and data storage. It's easier by the day to rate, grade, measure, and categorize everything - including every bit of data about each and every one of us. At some point, everything will be digitized. Technology not only makes for new data creation, but it also allows old data (forgotten or even unknown) to be vacuumed up and stored. From there it's a few key strokes away from landing anywhere in the world. And what's to impede this? We are in love with technology and the business of technology. Technology produces digits, digits become data, data turns into information. At this very moment there are hundreds, if not thousands, of very clever and talented boys and girls writing viable business plans designed to monetize data and information. Really, what's to stop it?

Paraphrasing, Tyler Cowen suggests the following:

  • The future will belong to those who have learned to discipline themselves when they are very young - because there will be few if any second chances.
  • The future will favor those with natural talent and an entrepreneurial spirit - class and connections will always matter however there will be far fewer places to hide.

Well, isn't that special!
If you are one of the 20,000,000 plus Americans with a felony, you know how hard it has become to find, retain, and upgrade your employment. You have something to share with the other 60,000,000 plus Americans with less severe criminal records. You get it although you may be so frustrated, angry with yourself, and bitter to care one bit about the societal implications of your experience. But you get it and so does Tyler Cowen.

Take a look around you. Take a good hard look in mirror. Yes I know, we are all unique and special - and we are. This includes most of the 20m felons. But they'll tell you they walk a careful line and that there is a very real glass ceiling (cell) impacting their lives. There's a message here for everyone.

The future (the digital future) will hold the most promise for those VERY disciplined, talented, and entrepreneurial. I have no doubt about this. Technology is leveling the playing field and the fastest, smartest, and funniest among us will find more ways to shine and fewer barriers on the road to success.

But technology and digits will make it very hard to be in second place, not to mention further down the leader board. Think about it - how many seats will there be on the disciplined, talented, and entrepreneurial bus?

Travel well.
John Jeffrey Lundell

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